Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband calls Cameron out on the Tory climate change deniers

By forcing Cameron to reaffirm his green credentials, the Labour leader skillfully drove a wedge between the PM and his party.

In response to recent events such as Typhoon Haiyan and the floods in Britain, David Cameron has affirmed his belief that man-made climate change is a threat that must be tackled. He said during his trip to Sri Lanka last year: "Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate." But a significant number in Cameron's party, including, remarkably the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and the Energy minister Michael Fallon, take the reverse view, continuing to question the existence of anthropogenic climate change at all. Fallon has described climate change as "theology", while Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." (The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.)

At today's PMQs, Ed Miliband seized on this divide. After asking Cameron to confirm his position on climate change ("one of the most serious threats," replied the PM), he quoted Paterson and Fallon's sceptical comments and demanded to know whether Cameron was "happy to have climate change deniers in his government". In response, Cameron simply ignored the question and quipped that he was pleased Miliband's "new approach" included praising his stance on climate change. Miliband's well-delivered reply was that he had "gone from thinking it was a basic part of his credo to it being a matter of individual conscience". He ended: "If we’re to properly protect the British people against the threats they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in his government on the issue of climate change. Doesn’t he need to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change?”

To this, Cameron responded by listing the policies the coalition has introduced in this area, including "the Green Investment Bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables, the investment in nuclear", and declared: "he talks a good game but he actually didn't achieve anything when he was in office". Given that Miliband was the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who passed the Climate Change Act (mandating an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050) the last comment was particularly inappropriate and Cameron's other remarks show why this was a smart line of attack. By forcing the Cameron to brandish his green credentials, Miliband is driving a wedge between him and the climate change deniers in his party.  Few Tories will have enjoyed being reminded of the Lib Dem-friendly measures he listed. The PM's refusal to acknowledge the chasm between his views and those of many Tories also allows Miliband to present him as a "weak" leader, unable to enforce collective responsibility in his government.

Earlier in the session, Miliband challenged Cameron to correct his claim that flood defence spending had increased since 2010 after the UK Statistics Authority confirmed that it had fallen (in both real and nominal terms). In defiance of the nation's senior number crunchers, Cameron continued to insist that it had risen, but only by ignoring inflation and by including non-government spending (as Miliband noted). In a sure sign that he was losing the argument, Cameron resorted to the age-old charge that the opposition leader was dividing the country and had "misjudged the mood". It was a line of attack reminsicent of those deployed by Gordon Brown at his weakest moments during the recession. Cameron appeared both evasive and arrogant. The abiding impression was of a man whose words, on climate change and flood defences, cannot be trusted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

For more information, visit: https://digitalgarage.withgoogle.com